Utah Jazz NBA Draft Prospects: Xavier Tillman

Oct 14, 2020, 2:06 PM | Updated: Nov 12, 2020, 11:25 am
Michigan State big man Xavier Tillman (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)...
Michigan State big man Xavier Tillman (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – With the NBA season completed, it’s time to turn our full attention to the upcoming draft and the prospects that could help push the Utah Jazz closer to contender status. Michigan State junior big man Xavier Tillman is projected to be selected around where the Jazz are drafting and is widely considered one of the top 40 prospects in the draft.

The Jazz own just one selection, the 23rd pick in the first round of the November 18 draft, after trading their second-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018. Tillman is one of a handful of big men projected to be selected late in the first round or early in the second round by most draft outlets.

Xavier Tillman: 6’8, 245 lbs Big – Jr – MSU

13.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3 assists, 58% FG/27% 3p/69% FT


The first thing that jumps out about Xavier Tillman is his excellent understanding of the fundamentals of the game. The junior big man’s game is defined by doing ‘the little things’ that help you win basketball games. From setting screens, to boxing out, to moving the ball, Tillman looks like he’s role-playing practice drills in live game scenarios.

Offensively, the Michigan State big man does the majority of his damage in the pick and roll alongside fabulous guard Cassius Winston. Tillman sets defender erasing screens and steadily rolls to the rim where he finds easy layups and lobs.

He’s a strong threat in the short roll game due to his excellent passing and touch on push shots near the rim. He moves his body better than one would expect to avoid committing charges against help defenders who close the space when he catches the ball blindly.

Appears to have a few basic but effective back to the basket moves that when mixed with his wide upper body help him get good looks at the rim in the short mid-range.

Tillman has the ability to abuse defenses with his strong understanding of where the help defenders are coming from. He’s rarely late to move the ball which created a lot of easy shots for Michigan State’s perimeter shooters, especially on offensive rebounds.

Tillman rarely tries to do too much offensively, and rarely wastes a possession which makes him incredibly easy to play, especially on teams that their fair share of shooters and scorers.

As solid as Tillman is on offense, defense is where he will earn his living in the NBA. Without through the roof athleticism the junior big man proved to be one of the best defenders in college basketball due to his footwork, strength, and understanding of how offenses like to attack.

Tillman gets excellent leverage in the post on defense and rarely gets overpowered by opposing bigs in one on one situations. In the pick and roll, Tillman can either drop back and defend the rim as has become commonplace in the NBA (2.1 blocks per game as a junior) or hedge and trap or recover by not wasting steps defensively. His +5 inch wingspan helps him erase space that seems like it would exist due to his shorter 6’8 stature.

The Spartan junior can also switch onto smaller guards on the perimeter and hold his own without being targeted. Even when he is beat off the dribble, his length and timing help him erase shots at the rim.

Has some upside as a pick and pop player if he can improve his 27 percent three-point shooting percentage.


The problem when analyzing upperclassmen, especially big men comes when weighing how much of their dominance comes from their natural skill level versus their longer experience in college. Tillman spent three seasons at Michigan State learning the nuances of the game and rightfully abuses less experienced big men in the Big Ten.

Once he gets to the NBA, do those high-level fundamentals have the same impact against more talented players?

Tillman often found himself wide open rolling to the rim for easy lobs or catch and finish opportunities with no defenders around him. How much of that had to do with his ability to create space as a screener and how much of it was due to playing with perhaps the best pick and roll guard in the country in Winston?

As a 43 percent three-point shooter, Winston simply killed teams that dropped bigs to stay with Tillman, forcing them to trap. When they trapped, Winston found Tillman for easy finishes. Each player’s skill set certainly helped the other, but it appeared Winston carried more of the load.

When rolling to the rim, Tillman seemed to move at a casual pace. With his size in college he was still able to abuse smaller, slower defenses, but how does that translate in the NBA? His lob opportunities will diminish greatly due to his lack of size and average athleticism. If Tillman can’t roll quickly enough to the rim, or can’t finish with the same efficiency, help defenders won’t rotate down which will decrease his secondary playmaking role.

The Michigan State product would benefit tremendously from a consistent three-point shot but knocked down just 21 of his 77 attempts in three years of college. Knocking down just 69 percent of his free-throws doesn’t indicate clear potential to extend his range early in his career.

Tillman will be 22 years old by the time the 2021 season starts, limiting his upside compared to other younger bigs in the draft.

How Tillman Fits With the Utah Jazz In The NBA Draft

As mentioned in a previous article, Tillman matches the Jazz mold of drafting players from blue-chip schools with strong physical measurements. As vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey has indicated, the Jazz are looking to up their defensive integrity after dropping back to the middle of the pack in defensive rating this season, and Tillman would help address those issues when Rudy Gobert is off the floor.

Bojan Bogdanovic is likely the ideal forward to suit up next to a player of Tillman’s skillset. It’s not difficult to imagine the Spartan big man dissecting defenses by finding Bogdanovic spacing the floor out of the low post, or catching the Croatian star cutting to the rim for easy finishes after dragging his defender out of the paint.

With Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Bogdanovic, and potentially Jordan Clarkson returning, the Jazz wouldn’t need Tillman to fill a major scoring role, which would allow him to focus on the intangibles that put him on the NBA radar in the first place.

If Tillman continues to develop, especially as an outside shooter, he has a chance to be a future starter which could be good insurance if Gobert leaves in free agency next summer.

On the flipside, Tillman has striking similarities to current Jazz reserve Juwan Morgan. Morgan was also a terrific secondary playmaker in the Big Ten, standing 6’8, with a strong set of intangibles who flourishes over a long career.

While Tillman has a more impressive defensive game, is he different enough from Morgan to warrant an uber-valuable first-round draft pick? Furthermore, if Gobert is a part of the Jazz long term plans, the Jazz shouldn’t use another late first-rounder on reserve big man after drafting Tony Bradley three seasons ago, while having rookies Morgan and Jarrell Brantley on the team.

If the Jazz plan to chase Derrick Favors in free agency, Tillman makes even less sense as a player of need.

Additional Prospect Breakdowns:

Utah Jazz NBA Draft Prospects: Sam Merrill

Utah Jazz NBA Draft Prospects: Yoeli Childs

Utah Jazz NBA Draft Prospects: Tre Jones

Utah Jazz NBA Draft Prospects: Tyler Bey

Utah Jazz NBA Draft Prospects: Tyrell Terry

Utah Jazz NBA Draft Prospects: Arizona Freshmen Trio

Utah Jazz NBA Draft Prospects: Isaiah Stewart

Utah Jazz NBA Draft Prospects: Jaden McDaniels

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Utah Jazz NBA Draft Prospects: Xavier Tillman